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Young Somali returnee gets Real Madrid deal

News Stories, 5 August 2004

© UNHCR Somalia
Abdi Bashir Abdi (left) with his compatriots before leaving for the Real Madrid summer camp.

HARGEISA, Somalia (UNHCR) Through war, misery, exile and family tragedies, it was a love of football that kept former Somali refugee Abdi Bashir Abdi going.

The payoff for the 17-year-old has exceeded his wildest dreams he's spending part of the summer in Spain training with one of the world's most successful teams, Real Madrid, alongside his hero, midfielder Zinedine Zidane.

Abdi, a tall, vivacious young man with an infectious smile, is one of four Somali youths chosen for Real Madrid's football summer camp in a programme organised by UN agencies and Real Madrid.

"I am looking forward to more training, meeting other young people from around the world, and also the famous players," Abdi said as he left for the two-week camp. "To me, the training shows what is possible with peace. Without peace, there would be no Real Madrid."

Abdi's extraordinary journey has taken him from Mogadishu during the time of dictator Siad Barre, to Hargeisa (the capital of Somaliland in north-western Somalia), Djibouti, Hartisheik refugee camp in Ethiopia, and finally back to Hargeisa.

His story reflects the difficult recent history of Somalia, and at the same time provides a poignant reminder of the determination and potential of its young citizens.

Abdi's family was originally from Hargeisa, but moved to Mogadishu in the early 1980s, looking for work. Civil strife forced them northwards to Djibouti later in that decade, when Abdi was just a newborn. From Djibouti, his mother and aunt took him to Hartisheik refugee camp, while his father went to Yemen to work. "It was a very difficult time," Abdi remembers, "and I haven't seen my father since then."

The one consolation during his four years in the refugee camp in Ethiopia was that he fell in love with football. "It was hard to be away from home, but I started to play football about this time," he says.

During the years in exile, his mother also died, and he and his aunt moved back to Hargeisa, by then the capital of the self-declared breakaway state of Somaliland, in 1995, when he was eight.

His life since then has been a struggle, as it is for so many young Somalis. He started school, but soon had to drop out because he couldn't pay the school fee of $5 per month a small sum in the West, but a huge sum in Somalia. He stayed with relatives and took up a cleaning job in their offices, with the promise that he would be trained as a driver. But when his grandfather fell ill, Abdi was instead asked to take care of him full-time.

Once again, he sought refuge in football. "I started playing with the local team at Sheik Mader, and would look forward to the games every day," he recalls.

This year his team entered the 2004 Somaliland Peace Cup competition. The cup was sponsored by UNDP and UNICEF Somalia, as part of the Sports for Peace programme that is one of the pillars of the Somalis for Peace campaign to celebrate this year's International Peace Day in September.

Scoring two goals in the tournament, Abdi earned the prize one of four places for Somali youth at the Real Madrid camp because of his strong team leadership and exemplary sportsmanship.

The trip to Spain brought the chance to meet his favourite international player Zinedine Zidane. "He has an excellent technique, and great skill," Abdi says, his eyes sparkling with excitement. "Also, he has a wonderful temperament, a good reputation, and he never swears or shouts."

Abdi's faith in the power of football is profound. UN security officials in Somalia reported a decrease in militia activity during the month of Euro 2004 earlier this summer, as local warlords and militia laid down their weapons to admire the skills of Zidane, Beckham, Raul and Figo, and the organisation and teamwork of eventual winners Greece.

© UNHCR Somalia
The 2004 Somaliland Peace Cup competition selected four youths to attend the Real Madrid summer camp.

Could it really be that sport represents a potential vehicle for reconciliation and understanding? "Yes, it is true that everyone wanted to watch Euro 2004, and that no one was interested in fighting," agrees Abdi. "Football can unite people. You can see that with the four of us going to the training camp. Two of us are from Hargeisa, one from Mogadishu and one from Merca. We did not know each other before, but now we are friends, we play together, and we stay together. We hope to keep in touch after the camp."

It's a hopeful sign that the football camp may pay long-lasting dividends for Somalia, a country plagued by violence for more than two decades. Says Abdi: "I want to make the most of the training camp, learn as much as I can, and bring a message of peace, during my time in Spain and when I return."

By Rob Gaylard
UNHCR Somalia




UNHCR country pages

Crossing the Gulf of Aden

Every year thousands of people in the Horn of Africa - mainly Somalis and Ethiopians - leave their homes out of fear or pure despair, in search of safety or a better life. They make their way over dangerous Somali roads to Bossaso in the northern semi-autonomous region of Puntland.

In this lawless area, smuggler networks have free reign and innocent and desperate civilians pay up to US$150 to make the perilous trip across the Gulf of Aden.

Some stay weeks on end in safe houses or temporary homes in Bossaso before they can depart. A sudden call and a departure in the middle of the night, crammed in small unstable boats. At sea, anything can happen to them - they are at the whim of smugglers. Some people get beaten, stabbed, killed and thrown overboard. Others drown before arriving on the beaches of Yemen, which have become the burial ground for hundreds who many of those who died en route.

Crossing the Gulf of Aden


In February 2005, one of the last groups of Somalilander refugees to leave Aisha refugee camp in eastern Ethiopia boarded a UNHCR convoy and headed home to Harrirad in North-west Somalia - the self-declared independent state of Somaliland. Two years ago Harrirad was a tiny, sleepy village with only 67 buildings, but today more than 1,000 people live there, nearly all of whom are former refugees rebuilding their lives.

As the refugees flow back into Somalia, UNHCR plans to close Aisha camp by the middle of the year. The few remaining refugees in Aisha - who come from southern Somalia - will most likely be moved to the last eastern camp, Kebribeyah, already home to more than 10,000 refugees who cannot go home to Mogadishu and other areas in southern Somalia because of continuing lawlessness there. So far refugees have been returning to only two areas of the country - Somaliland and Puntland in the north-east.


Flood Airdrop in Kenya

Over the weekend, UNHCR with the help of the US military began an emergency airdrop of some 200 tonnes of relief supplies for thousands of refugees badly hit by massive flooding in the Dadaab refugee camps in northern Kenya.

In a spectacular sight, 16 tonnes of plastic sheeting, mosquito nets, tents and blankets, were dropped on each run from the C-130 transport plane onto a site cleared of animals and people. Refugees loaded the supplies on trucks to take to the camps.

Dadaab, a three-camp complex hosting some 160,000 refugees, mainly from Somalia, has been cut off from the world for a month by heavy rains that washed away the road connecting the remote camps to the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. Air transport is the only way to get supplies into the camps.

UNHCR has moved 7,000 refugees from Ifo camp, worst affected by the flooding, to Hagadera camp, some 20 km away. A further 7,000 refugees have been moved to higher ground at a new site, called Ifo 2.

Posted in December 2006

Flood Airdrop in Kenya

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